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Environmentalist's remarks rile water managers who attack with tax talking points

Old World climbing fernIn a press release proclaiming that South Florida residents should "Get the Facts," the South Florida Water Management District moved from neutral regulator to attack dog Monday using a press release to criticize Audubon of Florida for disagreeing with the district's decision to rollback property taxes instead of paying for invasive species control in the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge.

Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper appeared before the governing board at its meeting last week and urged it to use money from reserve funds to address what district officials say is an emergency situation in which an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern is threatening to collapse the tree canopy.

"It is absolutely an emergency, but you have the resources,'' Draper told the governing board. "And it is your land. Fund it."

He added that if the district chooses not to use the money in its reserves, the board could also "change your mind about rolling back the millage" rate and use the increase in property tax collections, generated by the increase in property values, to pay for the emergency. 

"It is not an appropriate or smart strategy to say to Congress, which is cutting its budget and struggling with a federal deficit, to spend that money when you are not willing to increase the amount of money you are spending to control that,'' he said. 

SFWMD executive director Pete Antonacci replied. He said the district has spent $2.3 million to control the invasive plant, also known as Lygodium microphyllum"Money that you are under no obligation to spend and still we have not seen our federal colleagues to do something similar,'' he said.

Draper's remarks hit a nerve. Rather than direct the blame at the federal government, which the district says is violating a provision in the 2002 management agreement that requires it to control exotic plants, the SFWMD used its press release to turn the focus on taxes, and blast Draper for suggesting the state shouldn't wait for the federal government. 

"Audubon Florida is asking the SFWMD Governing Board to raise taxes to make up for the federal government's failure to control an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern in the Refuge,'' the release said. 

Taxes have been one of the most important messages coming out of the district under Gov. Rick Scott. Last year, as property values rose another $21 million in the district, the former head of the SFWMD, Blake Guillory, proposed ending the practice of cutting back taxes and leaving the tax rate alone to keep the district from dipping into reserves to pay for its projects. 

Within two weeks, the board of governors reversed the decision and Guillory was forced to resign. The board replaced him with Scott's general counsel, Antonacci. 

The district's Monday "Get the Facts" did not mention all the facts, including that that Audubon of Florida is supportive of the district but wants it to work with the federal government, that the district wants $25 million over three years from Congress to attack the problem, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an annual budget of $1 million for exotic plant control and has spent another $1 million over the last three years for invasive plant control at the refuge.

Randy Smith, spokesperson for the district, defended the attack on Audubon as "factual information that is pertinent for the taxpayers to understand." 

He said that Draper wanted "to let the federal government slide" and that the press release was signed off on by the district's executive team, including Antonacci.

Draper responded. 

"Enough fighting,'' he said in a statement to the Herald/Times. "State and federal agencies need to work together to solve Florida’s invasive species problems.  The district has money in its budget and under its spending caps to manage its land.  And, yes, taking care of a special place like the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge might be more important than cutting taxes this year."

The attack jarred others in the environmental community. 

"I can't recall a state agency targeting a non-profit organization before,'' said Jonathan Ullman of Sierra Club of South Florida. "A public agency saying that 'Audubon Florida wants to raise your taxes,' is over the line,'' he said, noting that Sierra Club has been a target of a similar attack.

"I don't know who or what is behind 'Just the Facts,' but these emails are entirely inappropriate. The agency has become an attack dog, rather than a public service."

Here is the text of the SFWMD press release: 

August 15, 2016

Audubon Florida wants to raise your taxes to pay for the federal government's failure to control invasive plants that are destroying the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. 
The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board has been clear on two points:
1) The Board is committed to no new taxes on South Florida families.
2) The Board, as the landowner, will hold the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accountable for its obligations as the lessee and operator of the Refuge to protect this special place.
Here are the Facts:
  • Audubon Florida is asking the SFWMD Governing Board to raise taxes to make up for the federal government's failure to control an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern in the Refuge. The Governing Board voted in July to lock in the "rolled-back" millage rates for the 2016-2017 Fiscal Year. These millage rates will not increase the tax burden on South Florida property owners for a sixth consecutive year while generating the same level of ad valorem tax revenues as the prior year.
  • Audubon Florida claimed during last week's Governing Board meeting that the District has more resources than the federal government for invasive plant control. The District's budget for the current fiscal year is $749.6 million. In comparison, the federal government is projected to spend $3.9 trillion this fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
  • As Audubon Florida notes, the District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have repeatedly stepped in to invest millions toward invasive plant treatment in the Refuge. The USFWS has not even asked Congress for funding to fix an urgent problem that is the federal agency's responsibility under a 50-year agreement to use state lands.
  • Audubon Florida acknowledges that the Refuge faces "a crisis." Yet the organization wants the USFWS to continue operating the Refuge while asking South Florida property owners to pay more to fix the problem. This is like arguing a tenant should continue living in an apartment while the landlord pays to repair a hole the tenant punched in the wall - not real smart.
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